Gertrude Ederle, who was called ”America’s best girl” after she became the first woman to swim across the English Channel on August 6,,1926. She made a memorable contribution in an age when many found it difficult to take female athletes seriously. They had to take Ederle seriously, because she beat the records of the five men who had previously made the swim from 1875 to 1923.
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In the early 1920’s, as a competitive swimmer, she set women’s world freestyle records and American freestyle records for various distances from 100 to 800 meters. In a single afternoon in 1922, she broke seven such records at Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Between 1921 and 1925, she held 29 amateur national and world records.
In 1924, she was a member of the United States team that competed in the Olympics in Paris. She won a gold medal as part of the 400-meter freestyle relay, and she won the bronze medal in the 100 and 400 individual freestyle events. It was no small accomplishment. She was swimming with an injured knee and, together with the other female athletes from the United States, she had an added handicap of fatigue. They were put up in hotels far away from the center of Paris because United States officials did not want them contaminated with what they saw as the city’s bohemian morality. Ederle and her teammates had to travel five to six hours each day to practice in the Olympic pool.
Shortly after 7 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1926, Ederle, smeared with sheep grease, waded into the English Channel at Cape Gris-Nez, France. She could see a red ball on the French shore, a warning to small craft to avoid a sea that promised to be very choppy. ”Please, God, help me,” she said.
For a while, she said she sang ”Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to the rhythm of her stroke. In the boat that moved with her, the crew occasionally held up signs, which said things like ”one wheel,” ”two wheels,” enumerating parts of a car, because she had been promised a red roadster if she was successful.
Fourteen hours 31 minutes later, a world record, Ederle reached Kingsdown on the English coast. If she had been able to swim in a straight line, it would have been a 21-mile trip. But the sea was so rough, she swam no less than 35 miles. Ederle always held that her record was never broken, even though in 1950, another American, Florence Chadwick, swam the Channel in 13 hours 20 minutes. That was in a relatively calm sea, Ederle said, so it was not a fair comparison.
She was not prepared for the ticker-tape parade that New York gave her through its financial district on Aug. 27, 1926, in which an estimated two million people turned out and chanted, ”Trudy! Trudy!” even though her family had always called her ”Gertie.” She had to be rushed into Mayor Jimmy Walker’s office in City Hall when exuberant crowds stormed the doors. She was also not prepared for pthe adulation she received in the weeks to come, when somebody wrote a song titled, ”Tell Me, Trudy, Who Is Going to Be the Lucky One?”
”I finally got the shakes,” she told an interviewer years later. ”I was just a bundle of nerves. I had to quit the tour and I was stone deaf.” The hearing problem she had since childhood was made much worse by the Channel swim. Ederle had what was later described as a nervous breakdown.
Her later life was quiet: She said that she had achieved her one ambition by crossing the English Channel. She taught swimming to children at the Lexington School for the Deaf. She never married and she lived quietly with several female friends in the Flushing, Queens, neighborhood of New York City. A hearing problem that had troubled Ederle since her childhood caused her eventual deafness.
Ederle died in Wyckoff, New Jersey, in 2003 at the age of 98. The Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, complete with a pool, bears her name on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not far from where she grew up and first learned to swim.
”I have no complaints,” Ederle told one interviewer. ”I am comfortable and satisfied. I am not a person who reaches for the moon as long as I have the stars.’